Saturday, November 27, 2010

penumbra black plague

Penumbra: Overture was a very pleasant surprise for me. Here we have a gripping, immersive, scary and emotional modernized point-and-click game. It had puzzles to solve, though they were not of the difficulty or pervasiveness that you'd normally find in older CD-ROM games. They were included, but with less "organize this chess set that some guy left in the middle of the room to open the wall safe"-ness. Most of it comes down to intuition, figuring out that you have to use X to open Y despite common logic not pointing you in that direction. For example, I spent a while trying to break down a duct grate before I realized there was a painting nearby that could be removed, revealing an open duct. I've already spoken about how Overture handled isolation-creepiness well, and while the creep factor is still here, it's handled differently in Black Plague, it's conclusion game. Most of Overture was an arctic mine in which you had to utilize this-machine or that-key to proceed deeper, all while avoiding wolves and spiders. The game ends with you (SPOOOOOOOOOOOOOILERS. If you think you want to play this, stop) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . getting knocked out after finally reaching the hidden research facility and excavation site that the mine is covering. Some Resident Evil (the first one)-style stuff is going on there, and your character is pursuing his father who worked there. The story and tone take a bit of a departure for the realistic fears that the first one did well, opting for something a bit more surreal. We get into X-Files territory here with the villains, with the scares more like "run!" instead of "what was that noise?". This isn't really a bad thing. This game has the impeccable ability to scare you using what you can't see instead of what you can. Villains are almost never shown to you, and if they are your view is obstructed by darkness or other things I won't spoil. I distinctly remember one instance in which I almost had a freaking heart attack, and honestly I didn't even SEE the enemy. That's special.


When you're walking around corridors with nothing but a flashlight and you see something down the hall that looks human but has a head that is a little too big and is walking irregularly, something about it just wrenches your stomach and makes you flip the frick out. The game does stammer a bit with it though, and in certain situations I found myself unable to solve the puzzle of what to "do" about the monsters quickly. You can't fight them (no weapons), and so when the game forces you to dispatch them as part of the narrative, your options are environmental. In those situations, sometimes I was unable to figure it out, and what happened was the monster eventually just caught me, and I was able to see it up close while it slowly slapped my health away, and my immersion was broken. The resultant reload and "try again" took the suspense out of it, but the first try was thrilling enough.
They've also thrown in some Max Payne-style dream segments, which, while as boring as in Max, didn't really draw me out. The game focuses, like it's predecessor, on psychoses and cabin fever both in its protagonist and in the peripheral characters, and it does this with surprising effect. Documents left by survivors as well as dialog from living ones show off some interesting characterization similar to (and on par with) what you might see in Bioshock or one episode of Ren and Stimpy. It's not too heavily colored, though. You encounter characters rarely, mostly hearing silence as you run from one room to another. It's like John Carpenter's The Thing where the coupling of isolation with insanity and a standard "only you can save us" plot makes something really suspenseful. When you have to solve one of the puzzles that involves a little bit of "mix this, turn that" work at a table or something, you constantly look over your shoulder.
I'm not going in there

The envornments are lovely, with a manufactured-but-abandoned style going on kind of like in Bioshock. I didn't love that game, but I liked the architecture. You get the impression that whatever went down at this facility happened years ago, and the fact that these environments are built for living but nobody is around just makes it scary. I honestly thought I'd have more to write on, but most of the stuff was covered in Overture. It's the same puzzle work, flashlights and running as before. The graphics are new but of the same quality, and the voice acting and writing are still good. You'll become attached to characters just like before. They did completely remove weapons, and while this was occasionally annoying, I think it helped. In the game before, you had a pickaxe, and if you wanted to you could just swing at dogs and such until they died, completely removing suspense if you trained yourself to the point of being able to kill without taking a hit. The flashlight also seems to consume batteries much more quickly, and the glowstick has a shorter light radius. This makes you have to pick up and watch batteries much more than before, and the glowstick is only useful as a last resort. This does change the game a lot, because before you could just run around with the glowstick and it would light the rooms well, removing incentive to use the flashlight. Batteries are now precious, and having to watch them so dang closely kind of annoyed me.
This game is by no means perfect, but it does what it sets out to do fehbulously. Most of the things I love about gaming are here, in numbers and in size. If you love horror games, this game is worth every penny, even at the non-discount 20 dollars. I'm a little touchy about the 20 or even 15 dollar price point for downloadable games like this, because for the same money you can get Devil May Cry. Here, though, it's enough. For 20 you get both games as well as an expansion. The ending is a little corny, but all of its horror elements, fun puzzles, subtle but powerful storytelling and colorful cast make this an true achievement for indie studios.

1 comment:

Can't find it?